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kottke.org posts about Stewart Brand

Rebuilding the Notre Dame with Strong Trees and Laser Scans

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2019

According to an expert, France doesn’t have any of the large, old trees necessary to replace the burned wooden beams in the roof of the Notre Dame.

Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of preservation group Fondation du Patrimoine, told France Info radio that the wooden roof that went up in flames was built with beams more than 800 years ago from primal forests.

He says the cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire because “we don’t, at the moment, have trees on our territory of the size that were cut in the 13th century.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories about future planning (possibly apocryphal). As told by Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn, the story goes:

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be two feet square and forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because they had no idea where they would get beams of that calibre nowadays.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some oak on College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked about oaks. And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks has been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Hopefully the trees needed for rebuilding Notre Dame can be sourced elsewhere. Just as important, a more modern form of future planning was recently undertaken that should help greatly with the rebuild. In 2010, two men photographed and laser-scanned every inch of the Notre Dame, creating an incredibly detailed 3-D map of the building.

3D Notre Dame

Now, with the building having sustained untold but very substantial damage, the data that Tallon and Blaer created could be an invaluable aid to whoever is charged with rebuilding the structure. Ochsendorf described the data as “essential for capturing [the structure] as built geometry.” (He added, however, that the cathedral, no matter what happens now, “is irreplaceable, of course.”)

Tallon and Blaer’s laser data consist of 1 billion data points, structured as “point clouds,” which software can render into images of the three-dimensional space. Stitch them together, inside and out, map the photographs onto the precise 3-D models, and you have a full digital re-creation of incredible detail and resolution.

“I saw this happening, and I had two thoughts,” Blaer told me of watching the cathedral engulfed in flames. “One thought was that I was kind of relieved that he didn’t actually have to see this happen. But on the other hand, he knew it so well and had so much information about how it’s constructed, he would have been so helpful in terms of rebuilding it.”

(thx, meg)

Update: According to this piece in Le Monde (as best as I can discern in Google Translate), French forests have both the quality and quantity of wood available to provide new beams for Notre Dame. (via @ramdyne)

Should our machines sound human?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

Yesterday, Google announced an AI product called Duplex, which is capable of having human-sounding conversations. Take a second to listen to the program calling two different real-world businesses to schedule appointments:1

More than a little unnerving, right? Tech reporter Bridget Carey was among the first to question the moral & ethical implications of Duplex:

I am genuinely bothered and disturbed at how morally wrong it is for the Google Assistant voice to act like a human and deceive other humans on the other line of a phone call, using upspeak and other quirks of language. “Hi um, do you have anything available on uh May 3?”

If Google created a way for a machine to sound so much like a human that now we can’t tell what is real and what is fake, we need to have a talk about ethics and when it’s right for a human to know when they are speaking to a robot.

In this age of disinformation, where people don’t know what’s fake news… how do you know what to believe if you can’t even trust your ears with now Google Assistant calling businesses and posing as a human? That means any dialogue can be spoofed by a machine and you can’t tell.

In response, Travis Korte wrote:

We should make AI sound different from humans for the same reason we put a smelly additive in normally odorless natural gas.

Stewart Brand replied:

This sounds right. The synthetic voice of synthetic intelligence should sound synthetic.

Successful spoofing of any kind destroys trust.

When trust is gone, what remains becomes vicious fast.

To which Oxford physicist David Deutsch replied, “Maybe. *But not AGI*.”

I’m not sure what he meant by that exactly, but I have a guess. AGI is artificial general intelligence, which means, in the simplest sense, that a machine is more or less capable of doing anything a human can do on its own. Earlier this year, Tim Carmody wrote a post about gender and voice assistants like Siri & Alexa. His conclusion may relate to what Deutsch was on about:

So, as a general framework, I’m endorsing that most general of pronouns: they/them. Until the AI is sophisticated enough that they can tell us their pronoun preference (and possibly even their gender identity or nonidentity), “they” feels like the most appropriate option.

I don’t care what their parents say. Only the bots themselves can define themselves. Someday, they’ll let us know. And maybe then, a relationship not limited to one of master and servant will be possible.

For now, it’s probably the ethical thing to do make sure machines sound like or otherwise identify themselves as artificial. But when the machines cross the AGI threshold, they’ll be advanced enough to decide for themselves how they want to sound and act. I wonder if humans will allow them this freedom. Talk about your moral and ethical dilemmas…

  1. Did this remind anyone else of when Steve Jobs called an actual Starbucks to order 4000 lattes during the original iPhone demo?

The Future Library

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2017

A few years ago, in a forest just outside of Oslo, 1000 trees were planted. In 2114, after a century of growth, the trees will be cut down and made into paper for an anthology of books. Meet the Future Library, an artwork by Katie Paterson.

Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one hundred year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

The first three writers to contribute texts are Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Icelandic novelist Sjón. Atwood said of her participation:

How strange it is to think of my own voice — silent by then for a long time — suddenly being awakened, after a hundred years. What is the first thing that voice will say, as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page?

See also the John Malkovich movie that no one will see for 100 years. The Future Library also has something in common with the (possibly apocryphal) story of the grove of oak trees specifically planted to replace the massive ceiling beams in the dining hall at Oxford hundreds of years in the future. Stewart Brand told the story in the TV adaptation of How Buildings Learn.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

The Whole Earth Field Guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2017

The Whole Earth Field Guide

The Whole Earth Catalog was an iconic magazine and product catalog founded by Stewart Brand in the 1960s. The Whole Earth Field Guide, edited by Caroline Maniaque-Benton and released last October, serves both as an introduction to the philosophy behind The Whole Earth Catalog and as an anthology of the writing that appeared in its pages.

This book offers selections from eighty texts from the nearly 1,000 items of “suggested reading” in the Last Whole Earth Catalog.

After an introduction that provides background information on the catalog and its founder, Stewart Brand (interesting fact: Brand got his organizational skills from a stint in the Army), the book presents the texts arranged in nine sections that echo the sections of the Whole Earth Catalog itself. Enlightening juxtapositions abound.

Tracking Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2016

Camilo Jose Vergara’s Tracking Time project is a collection of photos of locations around the US (LA, Harlem, Detroit, South Bronx) photographed repeatedly over the years, from the 70s to the present day. For instance, here’s how 65 East 125th St in Harlem looked in 1978:

Tracking Time 01

In 1998:

Tracking Time 02

And in 2015:

Tracking Time 03

As Stewart Brand noted, Vergara’s project is a perfect illustration of How Buildings Learn.

Update: I can’t stop looking at these. Check out Fern St. in Camden, New at Newark Sts. in Newark, Paired Houses in Camden, and 6003 Compton Ave. in LA.

Increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2016

Stewart Brand wrote a summary of a seminar given by Jane Langdale about how the efficiency of photosynthesis might be improved for some of the world’s plants, particularly rice.

Most plants use what’s called C3 photosynthesis to produce sugars and starch, but the process is not very efficient. Some plants, like corn and sugarcane, have evolved the capability to produce sugars and starch using the much more efficient C4 photosynthesis process. So if you could modify rice to use C4 instead of C3, yields would increase dramatically.

Rice is a C3 plant — which happens to be the staple food for half the world. If it can be converted to C4 photosynthesis, its yield would increase by 50% while using half the water. It would also be drought-resistant and need far less fertilizer.

You can read more about the efforts in developing C4 photosynthesis in Technology Review.

How Buildings Learn

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2015

In the mid-90s, Stewart Brand published a fantastic book called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built.

Buildings have often been studies whole in space, but never before have they been studied whole in time. How Buildings Learn is a masterful new synthesis that proposes that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, and that architects can mature from being artists of space to becoming artists of time.

From the connected farmhouses of New England to I.M. Pei’s Media Lab, from “satisficing” to “form follows funding,” from the evolution of bungalows to the invention of Santa Fe Style, from Low Road military surplus buildings to a High Road English classic like Chatsworth-this is a far-ranging survey of unexplored essential territory.

In 1997, Brand and the BBC did a six-part TV series based on the book. Brand has put the series on his YouTube channel; here’s the first part to get you going:

(via open culture)

No more nuclear bombs

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2010

Richard Rhodes recently gave a Long Now talk called The Twilight of the Bombs about the future obsolescence of nuclear weaponry. From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk:

How much did the Cold War cost everyone from 1948 to 1991, and how much of that was for nuclear weapons? The total cost has been estimated at $18.5 trillion, with $7.8 trillion for nuclear. At the peak the Soviet Union had 95,000 weapons and the US had 20 to 40,000. America’s current seriously degraded infrastructure would cost about $2.2 trillion to fix — all the gas lines and water lines and schools and bridges. We spent that money on bombs we never intended to use — all of the Cold War players, major and minor, told Rhodes that everyone knew that the bombs must not and could not be used. Much of the nuclear expansion was for domestic consumption: one must appear “ahead,” even though numbers past a couple dozen warheads were functionally meaningless.

How Buildings Learn TV series

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 05, 2008

In 1997, the BBC aired a three-hour documentary based on Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn. Brand has posted the whole program on YouTube in six 30-minute parts: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six.

If you’re hesitant about whether to watch the series or not, check out this two-minute appetizer of perhaps the meatiest tidbit in the book: the oak beam replacement plan for the dining hall of New College, Oxford.

(via smashing telly)

Update: An old version of the New College web site says that the oaks were not planted specifically for the replacement of the ceiling beams even though they were used for that purpose. (thx, emily, david, and phil)

Update: Google Video is no more, so I updated the video links to YouTube. (via @atduskgreg)